Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson at first envisioned having a boy of 12 or 13 play the fledgling preacher in "There Will Be Blood," the character who takes on the ruthless oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis. But after deciding that such casting was "ridiculous," Anderson still didn't give the part to Dano, who had auditioned for it just off his success as the brooding, mute older brother in the black comedy "Little Miss Sunshine." Though Dano did get a small role in the oil epic -- as the preacher's brother Paul -- that character had only one scene, so he brought little more than a change of underwear and a fresh T-shirt to the remote shoot in Texas.
The principals in the film are diplomatic when asked whether it's true that the actor who had been slated to play the preacher had to be replaced -- within days -- because he wasn't up to going head-to-head with Day-Lewis' intensity. "Whatever the problem was," insists Day-Lewis, "I absolutely don't believe it was because he was intimidated by me."
But Dano, who was 22 at the time of the filming, understood what he was getting into when he leaped up to second billing, suddenly playing both Paul and now the preacher, Eli Sunday. He'd worked with Day-Lewis once before, after all -- on 2005's "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" -- and had gotten videos of most of the Ireland-based actor's other films, including "Gangs of New York," in which Day-Lewis as the murderous Bill the Butcher arguably overwhelmed the actor who played his foil, Leonardo DiCaprio.
When the camera light goes on, you see why Day-Lewis is "known to be extreme in his investment in his work," as Dano puts it. The point is, either that scares the bejesus out of you, or it doesn't. "I think that is something to sort of be turned on by rather than be scared by," Dano says. "You know, it's like a game almost."
So, "when I first got down in Texas and we figured out this whole part thing" -- that he'd play the preacher who is instantly wary of oilman Daniel Plainview -- "we talked about it a little bit." Then? "Once we started working, I don't think we spoke to each other much at all."
That's a game? "You know, if he's not gonna say anything to me or look me in the eye, you know . . . I'm gonna give that right back to him."
THEY have three great confrontations in the film and the first two were shot one day after another, though they're far apart in the story: In the first, Day-Lewis' determined oilman ("I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.") slaps around the preacher, who wants to know why his church has not gotten the funds it was promised. In the second, Eli Sunday has the upper hand for the oilman is desperate to build a pipeline over the land of a faithful church member. The price? His baptism.
Dano suspects the back-to-back filming may not have been coincidence, but "PTA" -- director Anderson -- "doing that on purpose" to amp up the tit-for-tat humiliations of each man.
Dano says the scene in which he's slapped around got a new dimension when they saw the muck at the makeshift reservoir where it was shot. "It was like, 'OK, we gotta put him in the mud,' " Dano recalls. "It was Daniel and Paul [Anderson]. I think they both enjoyed that."
What they got was Day-Lewis dragging him through the mud by the hair while he gives off a high-pitched squeal, "that sort of happened in the moment," Dano says. "When I saw the film I went, 'Oh, my God, I'm screaming like a girl.' "
Plus, the tables were turned the next day. Dano had already experienced the seductive power of the pulpit in an earlier scene in a shack-like church, preaching the spirit to local Texans recruited as extras to play the early 20th century settlers. He couldn't help "feeling these people respond" as he laid healing hands on them and sensed how, in that role, "you start to want people to maybe worship you rather than worship God, you know?"
Then he has to baptize and abuse Day-Lewis -- who is there just doing what it takes to get a pipeline for his oil -- and that was a blast. "Oh, yeah, absolutely. Being a threat in terms of acting, in my experience, is more fun."
Except he wasn't supposed to slap Day-Lewis, at least not right away, for his face could get red. "And I completely forgot. Or whatever," Dano says. "Yeah, I mean, I'm pretty sure I just forgot and was having fun in the scene, you know, in the moment and I slapped the hell out of his face and then as soon as they yelled 'Cut!' I went, 'Oh . . . .' . . . I was mortified but I was also sort of thrilled, you know?"
Dano lives in New York, where, now 23, he has a year to go to get his degree in English at the New School amid doing films and plays. Indeed, he recently appeared in the off-Broadway "Things We Want," playing a possibly suicidal cooking school dropout under the direction of Ethan Hawke, with whom Dano has found himself on some lists lately -- of contenders for the supporting actor Oscar.
Hawke has been mentioned for "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." And Dano? Well, for being thrust suddenly into a difficult part, having to call home for more underwear, then holding his own in the company of Daniel Day-Lewis.